Iron Man: An Analysis
Dir. Jon Favreau
Writ. Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway
Marvel movies are formula. Marvel movies are clockwork. They may not work for you (they rarely do for me), but they undeniably work. This is because they follow consistent structural beats flavored by slight iterations, with the precedent set by 2008’s Iron Man. Narrative threads, visual motifs, lines of dialogue…virtually everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is constructed around sets of three, which isn’t in itself surprising given how many stories are built in three-act structure. But Marvel’s success comes from their ability to shift genre and tone within that structure; it makes their work feel both diverse and of a whole.
Iron Man begins with a wide shot of the Afghan desert, and this image conveys a great deal of information: 1. Context. The War on Terror was deep in the American public consciousness in 2008—a landscape like this is banking on audience familiarity with news or documentary footage of Iraqi/Afghani areas and immediately puts us in a Middle Eastern mindset along with everything that implies, primarily danger. 2. The angle of the shot enhances this implication. The rocks in the lower right corner of the frame allow us to orient ourselves in the position of the camera within the landscape, on a slope above the approaching vehicles. The mountains in the background provide scope: these vehicles are driving along the bottom of a wide valley, the open area leaving them exposed, with high ground on both sides from which an attack could come. 3. The vehicles are barely noticeable in the shot, and their lack of size within the frame implies vulnerability. Compounding this quality is the camera’s slow pan to the left as it follows the convoy—the movement is voyeuristic, almost as if someone is watching from afar, a tracking shot that is perhaps also a point-of-view shot.
It is important to note that we as the viewer have been placed in the position of a potential attacker. We don’t begin in the convey itself, looking up in fear at the looming mountains; we are looking down at the vehicles, whose occupants are unaware of our presence. This is a clear case of dramatic irony. The audience is aware of a potential threat that the characters are not, and thus we feel tense when we move out of the establishing shot and into the story. We are waiting for the strike as soon as we cut to the convoy. It’s an extraordinarily effective opening shot; as the film gives way to Robert Downey, Jr. and his snappy improvisational style, we will see fewer images so densely packed with information.
The next shot delivers a confirmation of location in the form of on-screen text—unnecessary, given both context and communication through dialogue after the cold open—and a hard tonal shift as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” enters the non-diegetic soundscape. This is followed by a series of shots glamorizing the American military: low-angle shots so the vehicles in the convoy appear to loom over and overwhelm the viewer, filling the frame, and a shot in which what appears to be an Afghani citizen is dismissively passed by, implying that he not only isn’t a threat but isn’t worth noting whatsoever. Iron Man will spend much of its remaining runtime letting its characters undermine the pro-American qualities of the text.
Let’s examine the next sequence—the conversation, the attack, and the teaser leading into the title card—in detail. First, “Back in Black” becomes suddenly diegetic as we get a hard cut to the inside of a Humvee and discover that the track is being played on a boombox. This is the first of many instances in which Iron Man will engage in a subversive or ironic cut, with this being an example of the former. Not only is it a clever transition in that it gives us an auditory throughline that takes us from outside the convoy to inside the Humvee, it’s subversive in that it demonstrates self-awareness on the part of the film text—“Back in Black” non-diegetically tells us that the film itself believes it is badass, and “Back in Black” diegetically tells us that the characters themselves have the same belief—even while they are undermined by the transition from a booming soundtrack to a shoddy boombox. Iron Man will rely heavily on the relationship between the messages of its text and the messages of its characters in order to communicate its themes clearly and effectively, and the AC/DC transition makes us aware of this ongoing motif.
This first shot in the sequence, as we build up to the reveal of Tony Stark, lasts a little more than one second. The second shot in the sequence, which lasts approximately two seconds, is a medium shot of a soldier giving Tony side-eye: who does this guy think he is? Our interest in Tony, who we still haven’t seen, is in turn piqued because we want to know what he is doing that is causing the soldier to react this way. The third shot in the sequence, which lasts a whopping six seconds—stretching out the drama of the reveal with increasing shot lengths—is a close-up of Tony Stark’s hand holding a glass of liquor (a sharp contrast to the down-and-dirty environment, hyperbolizing how out-of-place he is in a military convoy), followed by the camera tilting up and racking focus to another soldier who is giving Tony side-eye. The second soldier, like the first, turns away after a moment. This communicates to the audience that the soldiers want to say something to Tony but are, for whatever reason, holding back from doing so. It’s a quick, clean way to establish conflict and a point of interest as the conversation begins—we, like Tony, are curious about the silence and want to know what exactly is going on. Our first moment with Tony is one of shared interest, allowing him to establish an instant audience rapport.
The shot length suddenly drops again (to one second) as we cut to Tony himself for the first time. The cut is another sly subversion, this time of film convention. We’ve all seen movies which build up to a character reveal through close-ups of various body parts or apparel: a foot, a hand, a shirt, an earring, each of which tells us something about the character before we finally see their face or their body in full. The close-up of Tony’s alcoholic beverage tells us something about him—he’s rich, he’s laid-back, he’s confident even in a hostile environment—and seems to indicate that we will be getting a quick succession of additional close-ups before his reveal. This isn’t the case, however. Instead, Tony figuratively barges into the frame in the next shot, which tells us even more about his character: he’s too smug, too arrogant to follow even standard film convention. He doesn’t have the patience for a character reveal. He wants to be in the film now.
Breaking down the conversation:
TONY (we know from the established geography of the previous shots and his eyeline that he is addressing the soldier in the front passenger seat; his attention shifts during his dialogue to the soldier sitting beside him): “I feel like you’re driving me to a court martial. This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you’re gonna pull me over and snuff me. What, you’re not allowed to talk? Hey, Forrest!” Great writing often fulfills more than one purpose simultaneously, and this final exclamation is a prime example. “Hey, Forrest” is a reference to the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film Forrest Gump, almost certainly this scene in particular:
The comment builds character by establishing Tony as savvy to pop culture, and it ominously foreshadows Soldier #2’s upcoming death in a combat situation (albeit, in an interesting twist, with the roles reversed).
SOLDIER #2: “We can talk, sir.”
TONY: “Oh, I see. So it’s personal.” Notice that this sequence of shots rarely places Tony and the soldiers within the frame together, reinforcing the disconnect between them. Favreau maintains visual consistency by keeping Tony in the right side of the frame and the soldiers in the left.
SOLDIER #3 (shot from Tony’s POV, looking up at the Humvee’s driver in the left side of the frame): “You intimidate them.” This line is a lovely little character beat—notice how she says “them,” not “us.” She excludes herself from the group and implies that she, unlike her fellow soldiers, is not cowed by Stark, and further clues us in to the fact that he commands some sort of authority.
TONY: “Good God, you’re a woman. I honestly…I couldn’t have called that. I mean, I’d apologize, but isn’t that what we’re going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first.” Tony’s surprise indicates how recently he has become acquainted with these characters. We get shots here of Soldier #1 and Soldier #2 smiling as Tony’s humor begins to dissolve the barriers between them.
SOLDIER #3: “I’m an airman.”
TONY: “You have, actually, excellent bone structure, there. I’m kind of having a hard time not looking at you now. Is that weird? Come on, it’s okay, laugh.” It is at this point that we start to see Tony and the soldiers appearing fully in frame together—it’s a beautifully subtle way to communicate their increasing rapport to the audience.
SOLDIER #1 (from Soldier #2’s POV): “Sir, I have a question to ask.”
TONY: “Yes, please.”
SOLDIER #1: “Is it true you went twelve-for-twelve with last year’s Maxim cover models?”
TONY (taking off his sunglasses; pay attention to when he does this, as it will become a recurring visual motif that signals when he is no longer bullshitting): “That is an excellent question. Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately, the Christmas cover was twins.” (Shifting his attention to Soldier #2, who is raising his hand.) “Anything else? You’re kidding me with the hand up, right?”
SOLDIER #2: “Is it cool if I take a picture with you?”
TONY: “Yes. It’s very cool.”
SOLDIER #1: “All right.” As soon as Soldier #2 hands his camera to Soldier #1, we cut to a wider shot that encompasses Tony, Soldier #1, and the landscape outside: this is establishing a precedent for the shot in the which the explosion comes a few moments later.
TONY: “I don’t want to see this on your MySpace page.” MySpace was already a dated reference in 2008 (which Tony clearly knows), so his invocation of it here is a bit of condescension towards Soldier #2—Tony sees him as youthful and inexperienced, part of a younger generation that thinks it is cooler than it actually is.
TONY (cont’d, in response to Soldier #2 making the “peace” sign): “Please, no gang signs. No, throw it up. I’m kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I’d be out of a job without peace.”
This final comment is Stark’s thesis statement and the point from which he will arc over the course of the film. Following this is a strange sequence in which Soldier #2 snaps at Soldier #1 as he fumbles with the camera, dramatically altering the tone of the scene. It’s an inorganic shift that has never worked for me, but there are a couple reasons why the filmmakers may have elected this route: 1. It causes us to tense up, mentally and emotionally cuing us in to the severe turn that events are about to take. 2. It provides an opportunity for a series of quick cuts that accelerate us into the action. Notice that the three shots leading up to the explosion decrease rapidly in length: eight seconds, then two seconds, then one second, escalating the energy of the film in the moments before the explosion.
Favreau then brings us into a dangerous situation with a series of claustrophobic interior POV shots that enhance the feeling of being trapped, juxtaposed with wide exterior shots that clearly communicate the destruction and death happening in and around the convoy. The notable line from this sequence is Stark’s demand that Soldier #2 (we learn his name here: Jimmy) give him a gun; this tells us that Tony likely knows who to use a weapon, or at least is willing to take one into his own hands to defend himself. Stark runs and takes cover behind a rock, and the camera zooms in almost comically on the Stark Industries logo when an explosive lands near him. It’s a moment of shock and revelation for Stark—he realizes the indiscriminating nature of weapons, and the conflict that will kickstart his character motivations and arc begins. The explosive bursts, lacing Stark with shrapnel. The camera, positioned above Tony as he lies on the ground, pulls back and up in order to make him smaller within the frame and thus heighten his weakness and fragility as we see blood blossom across his shirt. Fade to white, the burning desert sun—the passing of space and time is implied—and fade to a POV shot from Tony as a cloth sack is yanked from over his head. We then see that he is being filmed, and the camera pulls back again to reveal Tony surrounded by armed members of the Ten Rings. At 4:14, we cut to the title card—
—Only to reveal that the introductory sequence was in fact a cold open. We flash back to Las Vegas, 36 hours earlier, as an awards ceremony montage dumps a boatload of exposition into our laps. It’s inelegant, but it works well enough; a brief life story does not feel unjustified in this context. Perhaps the most important information we receive here is Obadiah’s temporary control of the company while Tony comes of age. This tells us that Stane, while lacking Tony’s mind for engineering, is much older and more experienced when it comes to the day-to-day operations of Stark Industries. It establishes Obadiah as a credible threat when it comes to financial and ideological control. I’ll explore later how the film fails to capitalize on this quality. Also take note of the frequency with which, both implicitly and explicitly, Tony is referred to as a “patriot” or “American patriot.” In the midst of all its superhero shenanigans, it’s easy to forget what a timely and savage attack Iron Man was on American imperialism—less than a decade after 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror.
Our first shot of Rhodes gives us a few informational tidbits. As he introduces Tony’s award, we see the Caesar’s Palace label on the lectern; this tells us where in Vegas we are and serves to establish the upcoming “render unto Caesar” joke that Tony will deliver. We also learn that Rhodes is “liaison to Stark Industries,” and his uniform tells us for whom he is a liaison. Obadiah accepts the award on Tony’s behalf when Stark himself doesn’t appear, and he comments that “The best thing about Tony is also the worst thing: he’s always working.” Which is clearly not the case, as we make a hard ironic cut to Tony gambling; his dismissiveness upon being handed the award (“Wow! Would you look at that. That’s something else. I don’t have any of those floating around.”) endears us to him, because he, like us, recognizes the inherent meaninglessness of trophies and titles.
Rhodes leaves Tony will simple command: “Tomorrow, don’t be late.” This is a quick way to establish tension; we know that something is going to happen, that Tony needs to be there on time, and that he is not exactly reliable when it comes to doing what is expected of him. Tony then hands his award to a man dressed up as Caesar and says “Render onto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” This phrase, of course, comes from a line attributed to Jesus in the Gospels: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things which are God’s.” It’s certainly tempting to overread Tony’s use of this phrase and look for symbolic significance within the Stark narrative—and I’m sure there are many convincing arguments for its application—but I don’t feel confident considering it as anything more than a snappy line. “Render unto Caesar” is a common phrase, Tony is culturally literate, and this is simply where his mind goes when he shoves an award into the hands of someone dressed as Caesar. The line might have allegorical importance when we get to, say, Captain America: Civil War (what do the Avengers owe the governments of the world, if anything?), but it feels largely meaningless here in Iron Man—albeit genuinely funny.
Vanity Fair reporter Christine Everheart verbally pounces on Stark just before he is about to enter his car, and Tony agrees to answer her questions when his bodyguard, Happy (played, of course, by director Jon Favreau), assures him that “she’s cute.” This is another effective character beat that both establishes both Stark’s easy rapport with Happy and his willingness to engage with women purely on the basis of their looks. The exchange that follows is razor-sharp.
CHRISTINE: “You’ve been called the Da Vinci of our time. What do you say to that?”
TONY: “Absolutely ridiculous. I don’t paint.”
CHRISTINE: “And what do you say to your other nickname: ‘The Merchant of Death’?”
TONY: “That’s not bad. Let me guess…Berkeley?”
CHRISTINE: “Brown, actually.”
TONY: “Well, Ms. Brown, it’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got. I guarantee you, the day weapons are no longer needed to keep the peace, I’ll start making bricks and beams for baby hospitals.”
CHRISTINE: “Rehearse that much?”
TONY: “Every night in front of the mirror before bedtime.”
CHRISTINE: “I can see that.”
TONY: “I’d like to show you first-hand.”
CHRISTINE: “All I want is a serious answer.”
TONY: “Okay, here’s serious. My old man had a philosophy: ‘Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.’”
CHRISTINE: “That’s a great line coming from the guy selling the sticks.”
TONY: “My father helped defeat the Nazis. He worked on the Manhattan Project. A lot of people, including your professors at Brown, would call that being a hero.”
CHRISTINE: “A lot of people would also call that war profiteering.”
TONY (taking his sunglasses off): “Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intelli-crops? All those breakthroughs: military funding, honey.”
CHRISTINE: “You ever lose an hour of sleep your whole life?”
TONY: “I’d be prepared to lose a few with you.”
This sequence sings for a few reasons: 1. Witty comebacks are confidently acknowledged rather than refuted. Each of these characters respects the intelligence of the other, and that invests us because we don’t know who has the power. 2. Unexpected payoffs. Tony’s question about Christine’s schooling not only tells us more about the characters—Christine is Ivy League, Tony has underestimated her, and their conversation becomes weightier as they both realize this—but gives him a transition into laying out his philosophical stance and establishes a basis for his appeal to authority that will come later. Take note also of how the conversation is always driving towards sex: “She’s cute”/“I’d like to show you first-hand,” so the payoff feels natural. 3. Tony clearly demonstrates his use of verbal dexterity to overcome logically-unsound arguments. He makes repeated use of appeals to authority, tu quoque, and even invokes the Nazis; a first-year philosophy student could dismantle Tony’s arguments, but he’s convincing because he has conviction and knows his way around a sentence.
If we had taken out the cold open, this is where the film would begin establishing its stakes. It provides us with a work and life philosophy for Tony—thus, we would have instant conflict when he sees the Stark missile in Afghanistan, and it would create a starting point for Tony’s arc throughout the rest of the film and the rest of the MCU. As it stands after the cold open, however, it loses this structural importance and becomes more of a showcase for witty banter. It is also important to note that Tony “wins” this exchange (he gets the final comeback, and he gets the sex he wanted from the beginning); he will have two more exchanges with Christine over the course of the film, the last of which she will “win” in the fulfillment of a classic but remarkably subtle three-beat. I’ll address this quality when we get to the final scene.
After a transitional sex scene, we shift to Christine’s POV; she is woken up in the Stark residence at 7:00AM by the automated voice of Jarvis. The tint fades from the windows, and the camera zooms out from Christine as both she and the audience are simultaneously overwhelmed by the obscene display of wealth that is Tony’s home. More confident storytellers would have avoided a cold open and started the movie here, for reasons I’ll explain thoroughly at the end of this analysis. Christine wanders through the house looking for Tony, and we are allowed our first look at a lavish set that will appear throughout the film (this is one of the few instances in the MCU where the camera refuses to needlessly linger on garish interior design, a problem that will plague later entries such as The Avengers). She touches a device on the wall and is scolded by Jarvis, who denies her access—our introduction to the regulation and control that computerized systems have in Tony’s life. Pepper Potts appears and tells Christine who the voice belongs to.
PEPPER: “That’s Jarvis. He runs the house. I’ve got your clothes here. They’ve been dry-cleaned and pressed, and there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.” The specificity, primness, and precision of this recitation tells us that Pepper has made this speech before, and therefore that Tony bringing home unknown women to sleep with is a common occurrence. It’s an efficient and effective way to build character.
CHRISTINE: “You must be the famous Pepper Potts.” This tells us that even the people who work for Tony are well-known.
PEPPER: “Indeed I am.”
CHRISTINE: “After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry-cleaning.”
PEPPER: “I do anything and everything that Mr. Stark requires. Including, occasionally, taking out the trash. Will that be all?” Of course, Pepper is implying here that Christine is the trash; we previously saw Christine match wits with Tony, and Pepper proves here that she can match wits with Christine—and she does it while staying professional and staying in-character.
This remarkable scene is less than a minute long and contains barely a hundred words of dialogue, but look at everything it accomplishes: 1. Tony’s home is introduced and established. 2. Jarvis is introduced and established. 3. We learn more about Tony’s typical behavior. 4. Pepper Potts is introduced, established, and brilliantly characterized in just a few lines as professional, competent, and verbally dexterous. 5. It’s entertaining! Tony’s home is visually engaging, and Pepper’s punchline is legitimately funny because it stays true to her character, doesn’t sacrifice the narrative for the sake of humor, and wisely is not played for laughs with a cheap reaction shot of Christine. All this happens during a transitional scene that continues to propel the story; it’s lean, razor-edged storytelling that completely works.
The next scene works to establish the relationship between Tony and Pepper across three conversational facets: the plane ride Tony is late for, business matters regarding a Jackson Pollock painting and an MIT commencement speech, and Pepper’s birthday. The first facet keeps us anchored in the ongoing narrative timeline; it follows up on Rhodes’ “don’t be late” comment from the previous scene and pushes us into the next scene with a ticking clock. The second facet demonstrates the degree to which Tony leaves day-to-day matters in Pepper’s hands and trusts her judgment. The third facet is the most important, as it captures the ongoing personal/professional tension between Tony and Pepper and eloquently provides a foundation for the dance they will share later in the film.
I only want to draw attention to one line during Stark’s presentation of the Jericho missile (an obvious reference to the Biblical city of Jericho, whose walls are brought down and people put to the sword in the Book of Joshua): “I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how American does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” The lightness of that final clause puts a bit of wry punctuation on the statement, which entices awkward laughter because we know how weighty the rest of the line is. Stark previously mentioned to Christine that his father worked on the Manhattan Project, and here we have another reference—a chillingly dismissive reference—to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that ended World War II. “Find an excuse to let one of these off the chain,” Stark says of the Jericho missile, “and I personally guarantee you the bad guys won’t even want to come out of their caves.” He preys upon—and likely honestly believes—in the traditional black-and-white moral mentality that defines America, and the film will leave this mentality largely unchallenged, choosing instead to engage with questions of how one discriminates between good and evil rather than what good and evil actually are or actually mean. It’s an interesting wrinkle.
Sixteen minutes into the film, twelve after the cold open and the title card, we catch up to the chronological “present” in the narrative with a series of shots from Tony’s POV, culminating in a zoom from above that inversely mirrors the shot in which he discovered the shrapnel in his chest near the end of the cold open. A “stark” (get it?) light highlights his profile as he pulls a tube from his nostril. Our first shot of Yinsen is from behind; we see only a portion of his face as he shaves in a crude mirror. Like Stark, we are immediately suspicious. We can’t fully see this man’s face. Why is he shaving, of all things, in a cave in Afghanistan? Is he one of these so-called “bad guys”? Stark discovers, after a warning from Yinsen, that there is a mysterious device in his chest. It is hooked up to a car battery.
Yinsen explains the situation. I don’t quite buy Stark asking what the device is after learning about the shrapnel in his bloodstream; everything we know about him so far leads me to believe that he would be able to reason it out, but that’s a minor quibble and it doesn’t completely throw me out of the movie. I do find it immensely interesting that the Ten Rings member Abu Bakaar calls Tony “the most famous mass murderer in the history of America” and is fully aware of the Jericho missile demonstration; Tony’s so-called “bad guys” are more conscious of his hypocrisy than he is, and they seem to know as much about his weapons activity as the United States military—we know from later in the film that this is because they are already working with Obadiah, but in the moment this reveal functions like a splash of cold water for both Tony and the audience. The division between who does and doesn’t have access to advanced weaponry is suddenly and terrifyingly blurred, which speaks to early 21st-century WMD paranoia.
Abu Bakaar shows Tony the cache of Stark weapons outside the cave, promising to free him if he builds the Jericho missile. They shake hands, but Tony and Yinsen mutually agree that he is lying, an exchange that is missed by Bakaar due to the language barrier. Encouraged by Yinsen, Stark begins building his prototype Iron Man suit rather than the missile. How will he complete it before the members of the Ten Rings realize what he is up to?
This sequence is punctuated only by our introduction to Raza, who speaks English—there is no communication barrier to give Tony and Yinsen an edge when he is present—and gives our conflict a time lock: “You have until tomorrow to build my missile.” The tension is ratcheted higher and higher as the members of the Ten Rings become more and more suspicious of Stark’s actions.
We spend a significant amount of time in the POV of the terrorists during the escape sequence, which shifts slowly back into Stark’s POV as he moves out of the cave. I’m always surprised by the eloquence of Yinsen’s arc and its conclusion during this sequence. Religion is a quality generally absent from the MCU, and we feel that absence from minute one; it surprises us, then, when religion intrudes upon the story so suddenly, so honestly, and so positively. It's also a remarkably sensitive move considering the subject matter and the relationship between Islam and terrorism, both in reality and as perceived by the American public consciousness in the early 2000s. Seeing his family again provides a strong emotional push for both Yinsen and Tony, but the reveal that his family is already dead is entirely consistent with Yinsen’s character (pragmatic as Stark, but fierce of faith and willing to deceive in the interest of the greater good).
The first act of Iron Man concludes with the helicopter rescue, and your instincts are correct if you feel that something is not quite right. We are forty-two minutes into the movie at this point—a whopping twelve minutes past where the first act should end in a film of this length. I’ve heard it argued, and argued convincingly, that the first act actually ends when Tony makes his announcement at the press conference. I don’t buy this; the tonal shift that occurs upon Tony’s arrival to America is simply too severe not to demarcate an act break, especially given that this is the moment in which the immediate conflict is resolved. The alternate interpretation of the act break is predicated on major shifts in conflict; hence, Tony’s announcement and the reveal of Obadiah as the antagonist are our turning points. The problem with this understanding of structure in Iron Man is that the end of the second act is a reveal to the audience, not to Tony. The conflict doesn’t shift for the characters—it shifts for us. The axis of change must be consistent if it is forming the basis of act breaks.
Ultimately, though, the problems I am addressing here persist no matter where you draw the division between the first and second act. Since we don’t yet know that Obadiah is our antagonist within the narrative chronology, there is a nearly complete cessation of conflict during the three minutes of screentime between Tony’s escape and his announcement at the press conference. Three minutes doesn’t sound like much, but it’s three minutes too long when it happens in the middle of a story. This isn’t to say that every conflict has been resolved—we know that the Ten Rings hasn’t been defeated, and we know that the Stark legacy is still in doubt. But we’re not stupid; we know that the Ten Rings aren’t an immediate threat, and we know that the Stark legacy isn’t a pressing conflict that will be resolved by the end of the film. The problem is that, moving into the second act, we don’t have an active conflict until Tony makes his announcement. That’s too long. If Obadiah had been revealed as the antagonist of the movie near the beginning, this problem wouldn’t exist. Iron Man gains nothing by waiting for the “twist.”
Tony reignites an immediate conflict when he makes his announcement at the press conference. This is a surprisingly subversive move in terms of structure; reexamine your favorite stories and you’ll likely notice that it’s the antagonist, not the protagonist, who instigates the conflict. Villains are proactive and heroes are reactive. Placing the onus for change on Stark, then, is a bold decision, and you won’t see often see such commitment to character even within the boundaries of the MCU. Bodies and physicality are also used effectively during the press conference scene; the standing/sitting dichotomy clearly communicates when characters are serious and what we should be paying attention to, and we see Obadiah put his hand on Tony’s shoulder for the first time—he will do this repeatedly throughout the rest of the film as a power move intended to non-verbally cower his enemies or those he believes are beneath him.
The press conference scene also introduces us to Clark Gregg in the role of Phil Coulson. Gregg is so charming that it’s easy to overlook what a misstep his character is in this film. He appears four times, and not once does he contribute anything to the characters, the themes, or the narrative in Iron Man. His appearance in the final scene is justified—he is, after all, the connective tissue that will link each entry in the MCU up through The Avengers—but anything beyond that is utter overkill and a waste of precious screentime, especially when his urgent “debriefing” isn’t shown onscreen or even referenced. This is monumentally lazy storytelling and the first of many instances in which MCU cross-referencing will actively damage short-term narratives, a problem that will get progressively worse as we move through the Marvel films.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the arc reactors and how they factor into this story. I appreciate that the symbolism of the reactor as Tony’s heart—the thing keeping him alive—is not overplayed. Pay attention to the vehemence in his voice, though, when he tells Pepper to dispose of the reactor he built in the cave; this is an item closely associated with a traumatic experience for Tony, and there is significant amount of symbolic weight in his having to reuse it for the final battle against Obadiah. It’s entirely in-character for Pepper to keep the reactor, too. The one real misstep regarding the original reactor is the robot that hands it to Tony: it should have been extinguisher bot, which could have blown it off the table and onto the floor. Not only would this have been an immensely satisfying callback to the joke sequence involving this robot during the suit-testing montage in the second act, but it would be both legitimately sweet and legitimately funny at the same time—exactly the emotions we need to be feeling at that moment.
The big arc reactor is a bit more troublesome. Although it is filmed and spoken about by the characters as if it has a role to play in this story, it doesn’t. Is it a Chekhov’s gun, intended to explain away the magnificent technology Tony seemingly conjured out of thin air in the cave? Maybe—except we don't see this reactor until after Tony’s return, which renders the point largely moot. Or is it a Chekhov’s gun for another beat entirely: Obadiah’s death? Maybe, although this role in undermined because we don't know until the moment it happens that the reactor is capable of frying the Iron Monger suit on the roof (a scene which is inherently needless; the battle, by all rights, should have ended when Obadiah’s suit iced over). There is simply no legitimate justification for the existence of the larger reactor in this film.
The party scene that takes place between Tony’s first flight and the Gulmira sequence is an interesting one. Its primary purpose is to motivate Tony so that he interferes in Gulmira, although the scene attempts to make itself useful by furthering the Tony/Pepper relationship and repeating the earlier beat with Coulson and his urgent appointment. Let’s examine these in reverse order. Bringing back Coulson in this moment is a waste of screentime; it adds nothing to the events taking place. The flirtation between Tony and Pepper also doesn’t contribute much, but it enriches their characters and contains beautifully-written dialogue for the both of them. Tony’s wordplay upon finishing his exchange with Coulson sets the stage for his interaction with Pepper: “Well, I’m going to go to my assistant, and we’ll make a…date.”
It is at this point that we get one of the strongest payoffs in a film brimming with strong payoffs—the appearance of the dress that Pepper alluded to earlier in the movie. This attention to consistency across time fleshes out the world of Iron Man and lends it some real substance to back up the glamorous façade it puts up. Pepper’s line during her dance with Tony is one of my favorites in the film: “I always forget to wear deodorant and dance with my boss in front of everyone that I work with in a dress with no back.” Such an evocative bit of dialogue! The repeated layering of prepositions onto the sentence communicates a rambling quality that speaks to Pepper’s nervousness, and the order of thoughts—the most important ones being buried in the middle of the sentence, whereas the emphasis lies at beginning and the end—speaks to the way in which Pepper is attempting to downplay her concerns by equating issues of various severities.
Tony’s interaction with Christine at the party is a structural choice I’ll address in more detail later on; for now, simply note that it is Tony who again gets the last line in their exchange. He “wins” the confrontation by disentangling himself from the actions of Stark Industries. We then transition back to Tony at home after Obadiah reveals that he has been working against Stark. The scene in which Tony shoots out the panes of glass in his workshop is deceptively eloquent; he is, of course, reacting to his reflection—symbolically, the person he used to be when he allowed his weapons to be used for mass murder. There is real anger and real coldness in this moment. Note the way in which the camera stays locked while Tony strides off, stiff as a board, to the left. There is an established language for lateral movement within a frame; movement to the left is metaphorically backwards, movement to the right metaphorically forwards. Not only has this scene emotionally and tonally prepared us for the sharpness and brutality of the Gulmira sequence, but it non-verbally communicates Tony’s intentions to revisit his past and wipe clean the symbolic board of the mistakes he has made.
The Gulmira sequence itself is a delight because of its surprising lack of conflict. It feigns repeatedly at obstacles—the hostages, the tank—that seem like they will be impossible for Tony to overcome, only to have him reveal an unexpected bit of technology that solves the problem with ease. Also worth talking about is Tony’s choice to leave Abu Bakkar in the hands of the Afghani people. Not only is it a needed moment of humility for an American in a foreign country, but it speaks to the personal nature of Tony’s Iron Man crusade. Unlike many superheroes, Stark isn’t interested in an abstract concept of good—of being a good person, of doing good things because they are inherently right and within his responsibility as a person with power.
Stark becomes Iron Man in order to correct a lifetime of mistakes that he personally has made or allowed to be made. There is an endgame; it’s an unachievable endgame (a utilitarian system with 100% accountability across all parties), which Tony understands, but an endgame nonetheless. That’s the fundamental division of philosophy that will break the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War. Steve Rogers is interested in creating a better world just as much as Tony, but for him there is no endgame—evil is human (in broadest sense of the term, given that we’re not always dealing literal humans in the MCU) and self-perpetuating, which means that it must be dealt with by other people on an individual basis. We’ll dive into these questions properly in my analysis of Civil War.
Pepper walks in on Tony taking off the Iron Man suit after the Gulmira sequence, and I am utterly baffled by the choice to splice this scene with the moment that marks the end of the second act. One hour and twenty-six minutes into the film, Obadiah meets with Raza and betrays him, seizing the designs for the Iron Man prototype and killing his men. It’s a classic storytelling move: establish one character as threatening so that the character who defeats them appears even more threatening. This should all happen, though, before we begin the scene in which Pepper walks in on Tony. Their conversation is the statement of purpose that defines Tony as we move into the third act, and it needs to be uninterrupted in order to emotionally resonate.
The scene in which Obadiah removes the arc reactor from Tony’s chest is worth looking at in detail. This moment, the one in which all hope is seemingly lost, is traditionally referred to as “the pinch.” You’ll see it everywhere, although it usually happens in quick succession with the moment of triumph that resolves the primary conflict: examples include Luke’s torture at the hands of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or Frodo’s seizing of the Ring in Return of the King. Obadiah’s paralysis technology is beautifully established by his scene with Raza a few minutes earlier, but I am always thrown out of the moment with Tony by the geography of the scene. The camera keeps Tony against the left side of the frame—a cheap way to prevent us from seeing Obadiah approach him, especially when a quick survey of the physical space makes it clear that the only way Stane could have surprised Tony is by hiding behind the couch, a comical detail that completely undermines the drama taking place. The use of a canted camera when Obadiah removes the reactor, however, is a nice touch that puts an edge on the scene.
The Iron Monger reveal/Tony’s battle with Obadiah are largely by-the-numbers (and I address the most important structural qualities of the fight at other points in this analysis), so I won’t spend too much time on this section. I do find it interesting that the Iron Monger reveal visually mirrors the discovery of Tony wearing his Iron Man prototype for the first time in the cave (recall that that scene was largely anchored in the POV of the Ten Rings), although I am unclear as to the meaning of this echo—I can’t imagine that we are meant to equate Pepper and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with the Ten Rings, although that would be a bold and provocative move on the part of the filmmakers. I suspect that we are simply placed in the POV of the discoverers in each instance because it heightens the mystery and magnificence of the suits.
I find Obadiah’s willingness and intent to gun down Pepper to be completely out-of-character. This is someone who ordered his men to massacre the Ten Rings without taking part himself. This is someone who left Tony to die; only when Tony is fighting in his Iron Man suit is Obadiah willing to kill him directly. He has a reason to be angry with Pepper, certainly, but I just don’t buy him as someone who would personally kill her in such a hyperbolic manner. The part of the battle I do appreciate is the sequence with the family in the car. It doesn’t quite match the rest of the film tonally (it’s jarringly reminiscent of Spielberg), but it does highlight theme of the “pilot’s judgment” in that it is Tony and Obadiah, not their suits, determining the course of events. It would have benefitted Iron Man, though, to “hammer” (is it too early for an Iron Man 2 reference?) home a point about the power at stake in these suits by showing us some actual collateral damage as a result of the battle (how about that person on the motorcycle?).
“This looks important!” Tony says near the end of the battle, tearing out the components that turn out to be Obadiah’s targeting system. This is a weak line; even though Obadiah’s suit is a modified version of Tony’s, Stark is still deeply familiar with the technology. I would find it more in-character for him to actually identify the components he was attacking (“This must be the targeting system!” or something of that nature—he knows enough about the Iron Monger suit to make an educated guess, but not enough to phrase it as an absolute). This approach would also be a more natural way to clarify what has happened, as opposed to the painfully stilted “You disabled my targeting system” from Obadiah a few seconds later.
The final scene of the film is a slap in the face to superhero clichés, a quality which is easy to forget post-2008. The concept of the “secret identity” was a core component of superhero narratives up through the early 2000s, and Iron Man dispensed with that in a single line; superheroes in the MCU are, by-and-large, “out,” and that’s a deeply fascinating storytelling choice to make. Placing these characters in the public sphere recontextualizes our understanding of heroics. Most importantly, it factors in accountability—the exact quality that Tony is striving for when he becomes Iron Man. It’s a snappy, subversive way to end the film, a gamechanger that reorients our perspective on Tony and the MCU as we move past introductions and into the meat of the world being built before our eyes.
Iron Man’s final scene is also the conclusion of Christine’s three-beat. A three-beat is a particular motif (a joke, a line, an image, etc.) that is repeated three times over the course of a unit of storytelling: the first time introduces it, the second time reinforces it, and the third time subverts it. Recall Christine’’s first exchange with Tony after the award ceremony at the beginning of the film, where Tony “won” by getting the last line and sleeping with her (introduction). This is followed by another exchange with Tony near the midpoint of the film, where Tony again “wins” (reinforcement). Then we have this scene, where Christine insinuates that Tony is Iron Man—and she turns out to be correct, her success indicated non-verbally by her remaining seated while everyone stands around her. This is the third beat: subversion. It’s a clever way to enrich the story by arcing non-essential characters.
Here’s how Iron Man might have been improved. 1. Rebalance the act lengths. The film as it stands is slightly less than two hours; standard three-act structure would suggest a 30-minute first act, 60-minute second act, and 30-minute third act. Instead, we get a 42-minute first act (ending with Tony’s escape from the terrorists), 44-minute second act (ending with Obadiah seizing the Iron Man prototype), and 30-minute third act, which results in a somewhat sluggish pace through the first two-thirds of the movie. This isn’t to say that every film should adhere to three-act 25/50/25 structure, but it would have benefitted Iron Man. Shorten the first act to thirty minutes, expand the second to sixty, and leave the third the length that it is. 2. Cut the cold open. It’s a cheap and unnecessary way to get us into the story. Begin in Christine’s POV when she wakes up at Tony’s house: it informs his character and allows us to build a sense of mystery around him. The attack in Afghanistan would still come approximately twelve minutes into the film—that’s early enough, and it leaves eighteen minutes for Tony to build the suit, escape, and complete the first act. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but not impossible with efficient storytelling. 3. Highlight Obadiah as the villain from the beginning. The reveal isn’t surprising as it is, and it locks us into a conflict from minute one; Tony and Obadiah both want control of the same company, and they cannot both have it. This prevents the cessation of conflict at the end of the first act. Let’s imagine and walk through a revised edition of Iron Man, restructured in order to better deliver exposition, confront themes, and emotionally resonate.
We start with Christine waking up in Tony’s bed and play out that scene as-is, then follow it up with the awards ceremony sequence. Much of the exposition here could be cut and integrated into dialogue. Tony’s conversation with Christine sets the stage for our conflict. We would also need a scene from Obadiah’s POV in which we are clued in to his plan regarding Tony—easy enough, since we start the award sequence in his POV. This would significantly increase the dramatic irony once we get to Afghanistan. The rest of the first act, then, plays out largely the same and concludes around the 30-minute mark. The conflict consists of both Tony’s immediate situation with the terrorists and Obadiah’s coup of the company, so while Tony concludes one challenge he still has an overarching conflict to deal with going into the second act.
The second act would then focus on Tony perfecting the suit in secret while jousting with Obadiah over control of the company in every way but the physical. This would provide an opportunity to explore meaty conflicts. Is Tony suffering from PTSD? Is he “suited” (get it?) for control? Did Obadiah really try to kill him? The film could explore the connection between trauma and superheroics (it is worth noting that, despite being an advanced weapon, the Iron Man suit is first and foremost armor), complicating our relationship with Tony/Iron Man as an almost messianic figure—he is, after all, the MCU's first “outed” superhero, which means there is a significant amount of symbolic weight on his shoulders. The second act would then culminate with Obadiah seizing control of the company, a devastating blow that would exponentially raise the stakes for the third act and push Tony irrevocably into his role as Iron Man. Our three-act structure then ends with a success at the end of act one, a failure at the end of act two, and a success at the end of act three; this is a common and effective structure (see the original Star Wars trilogy for one of the most famous examples). Tony will also have completed his work on the suit by the end of the second act.
The third act is where the real reworking needs to happen, but one change would resolve almost every issue: the location of the climatic battle must be shifted to Gulmira (this is assuming, of course, that the Gulmira sequence in the second act of the film as it stands would be removed or altered to compensate). Why? Tony has a reason to be there—imagine him following Obadiah, whom he knows does not have Tony’s personal or ideological interests at heart and is going there to complete a weapons deal with Raza and the Ten Rings (much less clumsy than the convenient TV broadcast that drives him there in the film as it stands). It would also provide an emotional payoff for Yinsen’s arc and bring Tony full circle to where he began his Iron Man story at the beginning of the film. Most importantly, it would provide a thematic flashpoint—which is maddeningly absent from the film as it stands.
The primary question in Iron Man is one of legacy; what is Tony Stark’s legacy? Has his technology been a benefit or a detriment to the world (an ongoing 21st-century analogy to Howard Stark and the persistent problem of nuclear and hydrogen weaponry)? Do weapons really keep people safe? What role do people play in the use of weaponry? Do people make weapons more or less dangerous? A climax in Gulmira would engage these questions. We might see the townspeople use Stark weapons to fight back against Obadiah and the Ten Rings along with Tony—but in order to stand by his point that non-manned weapons are too indiscriminate in their destruction, Tony would ultimately have to defeat his enemies without the aid of anything he designed beyond the Iron Man suit. This tension between the physical and the ideological would make the battle more difficult for Tony (think of the push-and-pull between Batman and his no-killing ideology that has driven the character for decades), escalating the conflict as well as speaking to the overarching theme of the film. Structurally-speaking, Tony would ideally take advantage of the “icing problem” in order to defeat Obadiah. It’s an overly-cute use of Chekhov’s gun, yes, but it demonstrates one of the many ways in which Tony is better-prepared than his opponent. The battle as it stands is far too long, and everything after the icing sequence is empty conflict that does adds nothing to the film in terms of theme or character.
Changing the location of Iron Man’s climatic battle to Gulmira, given that it necessitates losing the second-act Gulmira sequence in the current film, would also clean up the sequences in which Tony uses the suit and slot them in beautifully with the three-act structure. Each act would culminate in a “suit sequence”: the cave break-out, the first flight, and the showdown with Obadiah. This is the approach that The Incredible Hulk will take, and it works wonders. The fact that we get four suit sequences (cave break-out, first flight, Gulmira, and final showdown) in the film as it stands distorts the pacing and muddies the three-act arcs in a way that makes the structure feel just slightly off-kilter, enough to undermine the confidence and precision that makes the best moments of the movie such a delight. Fortunately, Iron Man’s final scene is a sharp piece of writing and could be left unaltered even in this revised version of the film.
So where does this leave us? Iron Man is certainly one the MCU’s better offerings; it is relatively unburdened by cross-referencing, is buoyed by spectacular performances, and is interested in engaging meaty philosophical questions. Although the actual filmmaking is somewhat uninspired, cutting choices in structure and dialogue bring the movie to life—even though it can be difficult to decipher what was scripted and what was the result of Robert Downey, Jr. and his improvisational riffing. Unfortunately, major missteps regarding act length and thematic payoff cause the film to stumble almost past the point of recovery. Next up: The Incredible Hulk!